Military Leadership to Product Management

Will Perkins, a former Captain in the Royal Artillery and now Product Manager for Deliveroo shares how his military experience provides the raw materials required for the role of a product manager.

What steps did you take as part of your transition?

I left the army totally unprepared and actually did very little in the way of transition prep. Looking back, I regret this. Not knowing what career I wanted to go in to didn’t help, and I think if I had been focused on a specific path, this might have been different.

Which OA services did you use?

The OA’s Network Contact List is an invaluable way to get a foot in the door and get talking to the right people. In hindsight, I was too apprehensive about contacting people. Now I am on the other side though, I realise that this was misplaced. Myself and others are delighted to be contacted out of the blue and more than happy to help people, and will often take the opportunity to have a lunchtime coffee or even a beer with people.

How did you get your first job after leaving the Armed Forces?

I bumped into an old Sandhurst comrade who was working at what was then an unknown start-up based in London’s West End, called Deliveroo. I started off in operations and little did I know at the time that my road to product management had begun. Start-ups are always looking for people who can just get things done; it is no surprise that ex-service personnel often swell their ranks.

"The Army had provided me with the raw materials required of a product manager. Leadership, an ability to form and clearly communicate a vision, to motivate a team and to deliver results in arduous conditions. This combined with my industry knowledge was enough to get started."

What is product management?

At its simplest level a product manager directs the development of software in order to provide value for the customer and the business. Often described as a mini-CEO, they are accountable for the decision making of the product and its success or otherwise. They work with data science, user research and design to discover what customers’ problems are and how they should be solved. From there, they oversee the development process with engineering and the launch team to get the product in to customers’ hands.

Why did you decide to go into your sector/industry/role?

In my first 18 months at the company two things happened in parallel that would ultimately lead me to where I am today. Firstly, the company was becoming much more driven by technology. Decision making was moving away from the operational teams and towards the product teams at an ever increasing rate.

Secondly I was becoming the subject matter expert on the delivery driver; their character, their needs and desires. At this point it was the natural choice to move in to product management, working on developing the delivery driver apps, where I could continue to have an impact using the knowledge that I had gained from day to day contact with the users. I’ve never looked back.

What skills or experience did you need to get into this sector/industry/role?

When I was in the Royal Artillery, I learnt that in the Second World War, the pilots who directed fire from aircraft were artillery observers first and airmen second. It was easier to teach an observer to fly than a pilot to direct fire. This is often true of product management. It is sometimes easier to teach someone with an intimate knowledge of the company and the customer to be a product manager than it is for a product manager to get up to speed with the intricacies of the business.

The Army had provided me with the raw materials required of a product manager. Leadership, an ability to form and clearly communicate a vision, to motivate a team and to deliver results in arduous conditions. This combined with my industry knowledge was enough to get started.

Were there any skills/knowledge/experience that you were missing and how did you address this?

I had very little idea of the actual tradecraft of product management and was very intimidated by the Agile methodologies I would need to pick up. As it happens, Agile is much like mission command and so it all felt very familiar.

What do you really enjoy about the sector/industry/role? Are there any downsides?

I love that I get to lead rather than manage on a day to day basis. ‘Product Manager’ is a bit of misnomer; ‘Product Leader’ is probably a better description. It is a full time job; you own the product and are always accountable for it. I love what I do, so this isn’t a downside for me, but if you are looking for a more sedate pace this could be difficult.

What does a typical day look like?

The day always starts with a ‘stand-up’ at which the entire dev team gets together and talks about what happened yesterday, what’s going on today and if there are any blockers that need removing. From there, things become less certain.

It could be observing user research sessions to work discover customer pain points. It could be explaining the context to the design team to help them create the right user experience, or talking to engineering about how the software should function. It could be presenting the product roadmap or a recently shipped feature to the business, or working with data science to size an opportunity. My favourite, though, is to spend time out on the road testing the product live and chatting to drivers as they use the product in the real world.

What advice would you give to Service leavers looking to get into this sector/role/industry?

Very few people go straight in to product management. Most move across internally from operations, marketing, finance, engineering etc, because they want to be accountable for solving problems they see in their day to day.

Think about what industry you want to work in and whether you get in to it via another route. Once there, you will find the product managers love having people who are interested in the role and happy to take some of the burden off their shoulders, by shadowing, helping out here and there or just adopting a product mindset. One almost unofficially becomes a product person before they formally make the leap and adopt the title.

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